(93-7 THE FAN) — Scoff if you will about their return to Legion Field, but for Paul Chryst’s 17 seniors, including sixth-year lineman Chris Jacobson, this edition of the BBVA Compass Bowl has already been more than a glorified exhibition game.
With all they remember about the college football experience, to say nothing of all they’ve tried to forget, a win over Mississippi (6-6) would be a most deserved end to their Pitt careers.
“It’s been good for the younger guys. Coach is working them pretty hard. It’s like spring ball,” Jacobson said. “For the older guys, it’s a chance to stay sharp.”
“I might have joked about it once,” said Ray Graham, who, this year, overcame a traumatic knee injury to reach second on the program’s all-time rushing list behind Tony Dorsett. “But it’s another chance for us to get better.”
Through the trials and tribulations of 2012, during which the Panthers puttered to 4-6, it became obvious in the tones of their voices that Jacobson and the rest of the Pitt seniors expected more. The message sent thereafter was that the underclassmen were determined to come through for them, and they were determined to come through for themselves.
In wins over South Florida and conference runner-up Rutgers that punched Pitt’s ticket to Birmingham for the third year in a row, the offense out-gained those opponents by a combined 692-334. It has only turned the ball over once in its last seven games.
“You want to play your best ball at the end of the season, and that’s what we’ve done. We just started clicking, and Coach Chryst, selfishly, wanted another month of practice. He really got on guys about the seniors wanting another game,” Jacobson explained recently. “Guys started turning it on, and everyone was starting to buy in.”
“We kind of started playing toward the end of the season. If we had done that at the beginning of the season, things might have turned out differently, but those last two games were very important to us. We wanted to play one more,” Graham agreed.
Pitt will never again get a shot at that elusive outright Big East title, and there’s still no guarantee Jacobson will end his final collegiate campaign with even a winning record.
But the mood in that locker room right now is a stark contrast to the one that permeated it a year ago in the Bible Belt, or even two years ago, when interim boss Phil Bennett was prepping them at Hoover High School.
They aren’t just tourists in shoulder pads anymore. This time, it’s a business trip. This time, they have stability.
“Coach Chryst has always been straight with us,” Jacobson said. “He said he was staying. He was with us all the way, and he committed to us.”
Jacobson, who will appear in the third annual Casino del Sol College All-Star Game in Tucson, Arizona next Friday, talked about the solidarity of this senior class during his holiday chat with 93.7 The Fan late-night host Paul Zeise.
Furthermore, he and fellow senior Ryan Turnley are in agreement on which young lineman might be the program’s brightest star in the trenches going forward:
Meanwhile, that solidarity was tested when the season began with embarrassing losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati in which the Panthers combined for 27 points, seven of them in garbage time at Nippert Stadium.
However, co-captain Turnley has seen palpable improvement by the Pitt offense as it tries to overpower an Ole Miss defense that ranked in the middle of the SEC in total yardage allowed, and, more or less, in the middle nationally, as well.
“I think we’ve come a long way in terms of consistency,” Turnley said. “We’ll have bad drives now and again, but if you take away the first half of the Connecticut game, just in terms of gaining yards, we’ve been able to move the ball well and execute the offense.”
The heralded center will also get to spend a little extra time outside the frigid winter in Oakland when he heads to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida for the 88th annual East-West Shrine Game Jan. 19.
But just as important to Turnley, as he told us on the South Side recently, was representing his senior class with dignity, and getting Graham, one of its most dignified members, over the thousand-yard hump:
A battle of attrition wouldn’t surprise him. The Panthers and Rebels both fall inside the top 30 run defenses nationally, but Graham, who enters Saturday with 1,042 yards (4.7/carry) and 11 TD’s while earning another First-Team All-Big East nod, has proven he can handle it.
“I want to get more. I’m always trying to be better, trying to get more than what I got last week,” he said. “There was pressure on us, and we knew we needed those two games. We kept fighting, and the seniors kept being leaders.”
Graham, who has also caught 36 passes for 340 yards and two additional scores as a senior, talked about the turning point for his season health-wise, and his NFL aspirations:
The 2013 BBVA Compass Bowl may not be the ending of which they dreamed in the inaugural Camp Chryst, or, let alone, the one many of them envisioned when they pledged allegiance to native son Dave Wannstedt after “13-9.”
But for these outgoing Panthers, who have been through both hog heaven and pigskin hell, it’s a chance at an ending they have long since desired: a happy one.
Kickoff between Pitt and Ole Miss is set for 1:00, with Panther Gameday, featuring Gregg Giannotti, beginning at 10:00 A.M. on your flagship home of the Panthers, SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)